Surviving the Aftermath, Hurricane Katrina Style, by Frank G.

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On the morning of August 29th, 2005 we came face to face with TEOTWAWKI in the form of Hurricane Katrina.  An estimated 92% of our community in Pascagoula, Mississippi was inundated with a storm surge of 20-30 feet and 30-55 feet sea waves.  The surge waters traveled well inland, between 6-12 miles and combined with freshwater flooding from our numerous creeks, rivers, and the runoff from the Mobile, Alabama reservoir that opened its flood gates to relieve stress on the dam.  This basically cut Jackson County in half.  Fortunately the worst of the storm hit in the morning just as it was becoming daylight or our losses of 12 souls would have been much higher had it made landfall in the dark of night.  Even though, it took almost two weeks before they found and were able to claim one of the fallen, a young child, because she was under an enormous  20-30 foot high by at least 100 feet in diameter debris pile a block up from the beach.  The devastation completely destroyed all of our basic services: electricity, communications, water, natural gas, and sewage and covered most of the town with debris piled 8 feet or higher.  The storm’s impact was such that the entire state was declared a disaster zone and it knocked out the power to over 98% of the state and damaged 100% of the states power plants.

When we were finally able to walk around and assess the situation after most of the waters receded, we counted ourselves as lucky because most of the houses in the neighborhood where we rode out the storm appeared structurally sound and there weren’t that many trees down.  Even though everyone knew things were going to be tough for a while, we didn’t count on it taking at least two weeks to restore water, another 1-2 weeks after that to restore some semblance of power and telephone services to our temporary abode.  This appeared to be the norm for most parts of town that sustained “minimal” damage.  As it was, it took over three months before it was restored in our neighborhood, not that it mattered as it was uninhabitable and eventually had to be bulldozed down but that as they say is a tale for another day.

Like most storm veterans living on the Gulf Coast, we had planned and prepared but Mother Nature has an inane way of pointing out the futility of all of mankind’s best laid plans.  Yes, we might have possibly been able to evacuate but deemed it in our best interest to hunker down with some friends and ride it out.  After all, we were staying in a well built home on some of the highest ground in town and at least a mile from the beach.  Besides, reports from other family and friends were that the roads were so congested (1-2 million evacuees from 4 states will do that don’t you know) that it was taking over 12 hours just to get as far north as Hattiesburg, a mere 95 miles north and that there wasn’t any hotel rooms available all the way up to Tennessee and even if you could find one, what would we do with our combined 10 pets?  Besides, how safe would it have been to ride out the storm on some desolate stretch of highway in a vehicle, especially with all of the tornados that Katrina spun off, 51 in total in at least 5 states with 11 of those in Mississippi alone?

So, the hatches were battened down and our storm plan was initiated.  First, was securing and inventorying our combined vital medicines, foodstuffs, pet food, drinking water, batteries, candles, grill and camp stove fuels, cleaning supplies, bleach, anti-bacterial gel, clothing, important papers and computer hard drives, tools, firearms, and cash.  Previously, all of the vehicles were gassed up along with all of the gas cans and the generator was prepped and stored high.  The ice chests, freezers and fridge were stuffed with ice and the most perishable foodstuffs were ready for immediate consumption in the event of a prolonged power outage.  The television and storm radio were tuned to the appropriate channels and the bathtubs were filled to capacity to provide general use water for cleaning and flushing.  The attic access was opened and some basic essentials like: food, water, axe, rope, flashlights, etc.  Just in case.  The outdoor surroundings were checked and a few boats in the neighborhood were identified that could potentially be used in a pinch.  All told, we had enough foodstuffs to last 6 adults and 10 animals for 2-3 weeks and at least a weeks worth of fresh drinking and cooking water as long as we were frugal.  Ah, hindsight is truly bliss now isn’t it.

During the height of the storm, when it became apparent that we would be receiving flood water into the house, everyone rushed throughout the house to empty out the lower cabinets and drawers and closet floors, placing everything as high as possible and even opening up the attic and placing more essential supplies and tools up there in case we had to seek higher ground.  Once, the homeowner and I braved the elements to go outside and unlash the next door neighbor’s small boat (they smartly evacuated early on) from its trailer and re-tied it off to keep it from sinking or floating away.  While doing this, we were obliged to add another soul to our motley crew by rescuing a man from drowning out in the street.  He was delirious and starting to suffer from hypothermia so we wrapped him up into a wool blanket and laid him up on a long dresser in the foyer.  Later, it was learned that he woke up when his head bumped against the ceiling of his bedroom and that he had to dive down and swim out of his bedroom window to safety!  He had the clothes on his back, no socks or shoes and a small empty suitcase.

We tried unsuccessfully to get a passing fire truck loaded down with EMT and rescuers to take him, in case he needed additional medical care but they said we appeared to have things under control.  Besides they were headed south into the teeth of the storm to rescue people clinging to roofs along with an apparent heart attack victim.  Later, two guys in a “commandeered” boat came by headed south but, on their return, the boat was overloaded with people they had rescued.  All total, they passed by 6 or 7 times, and each time the boat was filled to the gills with rescued souls.  Later, we learned that they had rescued over 100 people before the receding waters necessitated docking the boat in their front yard.  I’m pretty sure that that tidbit of knowledge didn’t make the media airwaves.  Of the untold hundreds of similar acts of heroism conducted during and immediately after this catastrophic event by our local emergency personnel and citizenry, I felt compelled to add it because in the end, we all need to have a little hope and faith in our fellow man.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, it became quite apparent that we needed to re-assess our predicament and adjust accordingly.  My wife and I knew that our house that sat at a much lower elevation closer to the beach would be untenable so we gladly took our friends offer to stay with them until we could assess it later.  They were extremely fortunate in that their home, where we rode the storm out, only had 2-3 feet of water go through it and that the structure was virtually unscathed from the ravages of felled trees and flying debris which meant that at least temporarily we would have a roof over our heads and a somewhat habitable place to stay providing everyone pitched in and acted quickly to mitigate the flood damage.  This consisted of removing all floor coverings down to the slab, all of the upholstered furniture, wall sheetrock from the floor to six inches above the visible flood line, and anything else that cannot be scrubbed and taking it to the side of the road.  Next was scrapping up as much of the storm water sludge off of the floors and all heavily coated horizontal and vertical surfaces possible and depositing it at the roadside too.  Some of our precious potable water stored in large 5 gallon containers with copious amounts of bleach and general purpose disinfectant soap was used to wipe down and clean one of the bathrooms, the kitchen and dining room, and a couple of bedrooms.  It took a full 2-3 days of steady cleaning by all hands to get the house sanitized for habitability.  The surge destroyed our large reserves of fresh water in the bathtubs due to the force of the flood waters backing up through the sewage system drains.

It is vital that you sanitize every surface that could have even remotely come in contact with the flood waters because they not only contain sea water and sewage, they are also full of chemicals from industrial waste and numerous other biological and toxic substances.  In our case, there was the addition of some of the foulest smelling primordial ooze from the nearby savannahs not to mention an old medical dumpsite from a former leper colony on one of the barrier islands and numerous chemical and gas refineries.  This mire coated everything in town with inches of nasty, foul smelling and toxic ooze turning the whole city into a gigantic Petri dish rife with disease and bacteria.  It was three days before I could make the first journey out of the neighborhood to inspect our property and in those 3 days, our house was filled with every color and shape of mold that you can imagine.  It literally covered the inside of the entire house from floor to ceiling so, I cannot stress enough that the first priority in such an event is to sanitize everything.

This is also a good time to remove any large appliance that was submerged along with any other furniture and belongings that will not be repaired or restored.  Just make sure to take photos and inventory all items being tossed to the road for insurance purposes and be prepared to fight the appraisers in the event the city is able to quickly remove those items.  One of our biggest fears after the storm was that of fire because the entire city looked like one giant maze with debris piles 10-20 feet high lining every street for months after the storm.  It seems as though we went at least two months before it rained again which meant we constantly had to battle the potentially deadly dust and the oppressive sweltering heat, this is South Mississippi after all!

Fortunately, we were able to salvage the mattresses on the beds because they floated on top of the box springs, all of which was set out to thoroughly dry in the sunlight the day after the storm after being wiped down with bleach water.  Everything gets washed or wiped down with bleach water and sun dried so eventually, all of your clothes become severely faded and thread bare after time.

Temporary power and transportation was next on the agenda and even though the generator was submerged after tipping over off of the raised supports that we set it on, we were able to salvage it and get a couple of box fans and table lamps going as well as powering a couple of fans and lights for one of the next door neighbors.  If we ever have to do this again, I think suspending it from rafter eyebolts on rope or cables may be in order.  In the beginning, we only ran the generator at night because of the fuel shortage.  Because fuel was basically non-existent for the first month or so, we augmented our diminishing supply by removing the gas tanks off of the three new vehicles that “died” during the storm and filtering out the water from the gas by emptying them into a large 55 gallon drum and letting the water settle to the bottom before dipping out the gas to fill our jugs.  Make sure to place this drum outside away from the living and cooking areas but still close enough to guard against looters.  We were fortunate that my venerable 1984 Ford Bronco and 1989 Ford F-150 started right up and didn’t have any water in the oil or gas tanks.  The trannys had water in them but as our friend worked for the local Ford dealership and their main repair shop was spared from the flooding and had adequate generator backup, he was able to replace the fluids within a few days so we had transportation until we were able to replace them about six months later.  We were lucky during that time because unlike so many others, neither of these vehicles burst into flames from corroded or shorted wiring.  This was probably due to the fact that they were raised higher than normal and their cabins weren’t submerged in the flood waters.  It wasn’t until months later that I discovered that the flood water had gotten into the rear ends through a rubber vent hole, needless to say, I wound up replacing the rear end on the pickup to extends it life until we could replace it so, make sure to drain, flush, and replace with new, the fluids in the rear ends and 4×4 lockers.

An important note here about transportation is to make sure you have plenty of tire repair supplies as we must have repaired at least 20 flats that first month alone and even had to acquire another tire after we found the cast aluminum head of an old fashioned meat tenderizer imbedded in the side wall after one of our forays across town seeking supplies.

Another note on “salvaging” your vehicles is the electrical system.  A lot of folks spent enormous effort and time in drying out their cars and trucks and getting them to run to no avail as many of these same vehicles later caught fire as the electrical systems shorted out.  So, if you have to resort to this please add a fire extinguisher or two to your survival kits for such emergencies.  I had to stop two cars coming down the road within the first few months because they were on fire underneath the vehicle and the occupants didn’t know it!

The mechanic had to go back to work within a few days because his services were in high demand at the dealership as it became the main repair facility for all of the emergency vehicles.  He was their only front end specialist and in high demand because the poor road conditions were reeking havoc on those vehicles.  At any given time, there were 20 -30 vehicles with license plates from all over the country there seeking maintenance or repair of some sort for months on end.  That basically left it up to me make the twice daily trips to the county fair grounds for food, water, and ice to distribute to the folks of our old neighborhood as well as our “new” neighborhood.  I cannot stress enough the fact that you never turn anything down because whether or not you need it, someone else in the neighborhood will!  Additionally, knowing the locations of facilities rendering assistance by way of beds and hopefully hot food is vital as this will aid you immensely when you come across people wondering around aimlessly due to the trauma they experienced.  One notable experience I had was with a family of four, including two small elementary age children.  I had observed them walking around for a day or two before it dawned on me that they were still carrying the same bundles of stuff.  After stopping them, their story was one of complete despair as they had been walking the streets for the better part of a week because they didn’t have anywhere to go.  A passing National Guard truck loaded with MREs gave me the location of one such center so, I loaded them all up and of to that wonderful church made famous by Ray Steven’s squirrel song we went!  A few days later while dropping off a few more unfortunates,  I was told that one of the many charity groups was helping to relocate the family.

In the beginning, water and ice are vital to your survival and as such, must be stretched to its fullest potential.  Our wives came up with a great simple process for extending the usefulness of ice.  They set up a simple linear process using the four 100 quart Igloo ice chests that we had as the basic line with two smaller Igloo ice chest to hold any excess ice we happened to acquire.  The first chest was raised up on a sturdy chair and contained all of our foodstuffs and medicine that needed to be cooled, packed in loose ice (some ice is also placed into sealed containers to thaw as a means to augment drinking and cooking water).  To the right, sitting on the ground so that the drain plug of the first chest could drain directly into it with little effort was the second chest.  This chest served as our bathing and dish washing water.  It was sanitized with bleach because an inadvertent germ or two could be in the drained water from our hands accessing the items in the first chest.  You bathed by dipping wash clothes into the bleach water and wiping yourself clean.  Bathing was augmented by squirting GermEx with Aloe Vera directly onto a damp wash cloth and wiping oneself off.  While crude, it kept you clean, provided a refreshing tingle from the alcohol in the GermEx and aided in disinfecting any minor sores or scratches you have.  After the dishes were washed, the water from the 2nd chest was transferred to the third chest sitting to its right and then the 2nd chest was sanitized with clean bleach water making it ready for the next use.  The 3rd chest was used to our wash clothes and the 4th chest sitting to its right was used to rinse the clothes prior to hanging out on makeshift clothes lines.  The water in the 4th chest was clear water that came from sundry sources, e.g. excess ice runoff from the extra storage chests, suspect bottled water that was overheated in the sun, and later on pond water from the local park once we were informed it was safe for non-food use.  Because it was suspect, it was always adequately bleached.  After the clothes were washed, the water from the 3rd chest was used for mopping the floors and wiping off non-food areas.  The water from the 4th chest was used to rinse off everything that was washed with water from the 4th chest.  All excess water from the chests was either used to refill the bathtubs for toilet flushing water or kept in buckets in case of fire and later sprinkled throughout the yard and driveway to cut down on the dust.

Our close encounter with the Post-Apocalyptic TEOTWAWKI event named Hurricane Katrina has not only left an indelible mark upon us but has made us stronger because we survived it and has taught us a few things about ourselves and mankind in general that everyone can learn from.  Here are the 10 biggest that readily come to mind:

First and foremost, in the event you are forewarned with an approaching disaster like Hurricane Katrina, do not hesitate. Evacuate.

Second, no amount of planning can cover every contingency so be prepared to improvise.

Third, 3-7 days of supplies are completely inadequate because it can take up to 2-3 weeks before regular and consistent support from outside sources becomes available.

Fourth, everyone impacted that survives is just that, a survivor so you had better be ready to get over stupid prejudices because you either survive together or perish individually.

Fifth, you are going to have to work hard so, accept your fate and “hitch up your drawers” and get at it.  The first responders are going to need your assistance so that they can provide the aid you need.  Everything that you can do initially be that clearing roadways, sharing resources, making signs to identify streets or people in dire need, assisting neighbors, scrounging, and safeguarding will only improve your lot in the aftermath.

Sixth, maintain your vital inoculations for Tetanus, hepatitis, etc.  Get your booster shots.  Thankfully for us, the nurse in our family went over and above to seek us out and administer all of those vital inoculations.

Seventh, get your pets looked at ASAP if they are subjected to flood waters, we almost lost two of ours.  Fortunately, a dear friend that worked as a Vet tech was able to bring and administer the needed antibiotics to save their lives.

Eighth, more people die or are seriously injured after the storm than during it due to accidents while cleaning up, stress, heat exposure, microscopic critters in the surge water, disease, improperly stored or cooked food, poisonous insects and snakes, exposure to the elements, etc.  If you do not have any experience with the art of using a chainsaw to fell trees or cut them off of your house then please, seek the assistance of someone who has this knowledge!  Observe each other and don’t hesitate to seek medical assistance for even the most basic of wounds, especially if you haven’t kept up on your inoculations.

Ninth, an openly well armed citizenry tends to keep the wolves and looters at bay as they are mainly cowards seeking to prey on easy targets.  Down here after a storm, everyone just assumes that everyone is “packing” so, everyone just generally seems to be much more calm and cooperative.

Tenth, thank all those “outsiders” that show up to assist with the cleanup and rebuilding because 99% of them are there to genuinely help.  Especially show your appreciation to all of those folks manning the stationary kitchens and food trucks.  Some of the best hot meals I ever had came from the church group around the corner running a kitchen and the Red Cross and Salvation Army food trucks.

Lastly, keep the faith as it will see you through to the bitter end.  Even though it’s been almost 8 years now since that fateful day, we are still recovering from Katrina, at least economically but hey, material objects are just that, stuff, easily replaced when you get the resources should you desire to do so.  Remember, not everyone will be made financially whole after such an event but hopefully you’ll still have your health not to mention the most important asset of all, your truly good friends and family.

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